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Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life

Religion, Politics and Nationalism in Contemporary Turkey

Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life

On March 25 the Boisi Center hosted Jenny White, a leading scholar of Turkish anthropology and politics, for a discussion on religion, politics and nationalism in contemporary Turkey. White sketched a compelling narrative of the transformation of Turkish politics since the Justice and Development Party (AKP) came to power in 2002.

She explained that the AKP has brought positive change to Turkey, especially during its first ten years in power. It ushered in a period of economic growth and stability and greater openness to the world. This in turn created the conditions for the development of a vibrant middle class. The AKP has also moved away from the laïcité of modern Turkey by allowing symbols of religiosity, including headscarves for women, in places where they had previously been banned. Moreover, by affirming and promoting the Ottoman past, the AKP expanded the notion of Turkish identity, which paved the way for greater social inclusiveness. This allowed for improved relations with the Kurds, for example.

At the same time, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has become increasingly authoritarian. Formerly independent institutions like the military, the courts and the police are more and more now under the control of the ruling party. Judges and generals who tried to stop AKP’s encroachment have been arrested over the years, with some of the most prominent mysteriously dying in prison. Erdogan, moreover, personally oversees a vast surveillance program in the country. It is well known that the government spies on civil society, including religious leaders and institutions, Muslim and Christian alike. And of course, the social inclusiveness that has expanded since the AKP came to power is still limited,
 as evidenced by Turkey’s recent recall of its ambassador to the Vatican in response to Pope Francis’s acknowledgment of the Armenian genocide.

Turkey is now at a tipping point. It looks to be heading down a path of greater authoritarianism, and away from being a modern state with institutional independence.